SANTA FE, N.M. — For most of the year, you won’t hear a child giggle, cry or exclaim from the audience as members of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet define abstract movements and poses onstage.
But this time of year, all bets are off. Children who go to sleep with sugarplums dancing in their heads pack the audience to see them come to life in “The Nutcracker.”
Besides, they get to see kids their own age cavorting to Tchaikovsky’s music in the colorful, lively production.
“Kids play a big part in ‘The Nutcracker,'” said Jean-Phillippe Malaty, executive director of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet. The ballet itself, which comes to the Lensic stage on Saturday and Sunday, has roles for 60 youngsters, he said. But, through a weekend, more than 200 will take part as different dancers make an appearance in each performance.
All of them come from the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet schools. For Aspen performances, youngsters are drawn from five schools in and around that mountain town. For Santa Fe performances, the youths come from the ballet schools on St. Michael’s Drive and in Eldorado, he said.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for little kids dancing on the stage with professionals,” he said.
“They have rigorous training and a great sense of discipline,” Malaty added of the youngsters. “They grow up with ‘The Nutcracker’ … . It’s fun to see a little clown become a mouse, then a girl, then a soldier. That always keeps it fresh for us.”
What also helps keep it fresh, he said, is that the year-round performers are switching from the abstract contemporary dances they present through the season to a classical story ballet, he said. “They look forward to it. It’s a great change of interpretation for them,” Malaty said.
But with only 11 dancers in the troupe, he has to hire another 20 artists to round out the adult roles in “The Nutcracker.” And, for the folk dances featured in the second act, Malaty said he seeks out traditional dancers familiar with those forms.
For instance, two members of Juan Siddi Flamenco will perform the Spanish dance and an expert in Chinese dance is coming from Vancouver, while the Arab dance will be transformed with an aerialist performing on a trapeze, he said.
Most productions, Malaty added, have their own ballet dancers perform those roles.
Another departure from routine for this particular company is that, while it usually brings in guest choreographers for the dancers’ repertoire, he and artistic director Tom Mossbrucker choreograph “The Nutcracker,” giving them the freedom to tweak it from year to year to suit the strengths of the dancers in various roles.
“That keeps it interesting for us,” he said, adding that one might make a change that the other isn’t aware of until he sees it in performance. “For us, it is a fun process. There’s a lot of flexibility.”
While some might probe the deep psychological meanings of the story, where a gift nutcracker grows to a full-size person flanked by a giant Christmas tree, goes to war with a rat king joined by gingerbread and tin soldiers, then turns into a prince to escort the young heroine to his castle in the Land of Sweets (a carousel with a circus atmosphere in the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet version), Malaty takes a simpler approach.
“It’s a dream of children; it’s seeing the world through the eyes of children,” he said, adding that he also sees acceptance of differences in the various ethnic dances performed.
And while the morphing characters, and the mean rat king and battles can be scary – “sometimes kids scream when the cannon goes off” – children also seem to like seeing that harsher reality, Malaty said. “Sometimes kids like to see something that is a little darker, to go through a range of feelings” in a performance, he said.
And sometimes adults do, too. Rest assured, if you go to the ballet without a child by your side, you won’t be the only one. While youngsters are forming new memories, adults will be reliving old ones.